All the world's a stage, but not everyone gets access
One of the more admirable achievements of Irish writing is that it broke new ground for people with disabilities. Thanks in large part to extraordinary mothers, Christy Brown, Christopher Nolan and Davoren Hanna didn’t just find their own voices; they also gave voice to human experiences that had been shrouded in a millennia-long silence.
It was not unreasonable to think these heroic pioneers would be followed by more and more writers, artists and performers – to think, indeed, that the arts might now be at least as important an arena for people with disabilities as sport has become. But it is hard to avoid the sense that this first wave was a wave indeed – a thunderous force that crashed on to the shore and then receded.
It’s true, of course, that the relationship between arts and disability is not simple. We don’t tend to define Joyce or Borges (or even the legendary Homer) as “blind writers”, Carolan as a “blind musician” or Beethoven as a “deaf composer”. Hilary Mantel’s two Booker Prize wins don’t count as triumphs for “disabled fiction”, even though Mantel did speak of how the understanding of suffering in her work is shaped by the constant pain of the endometriosis she endures. There may well be a higher incidence of mental illness among artists than among the general population, but most do not wish their condition to be seen as central to their public identity – a choice artists must always be free to make for themselves.
Two things remain true, nonetheless. One is that artistic expression often is crucial to the emergence of a group identity, whether or not artists want to claim that identity as a key part of their work. The other is that in some areas of the arts this isn’t really a matter of choice. A gay actor can act straight, but a person with cerebral palsy can’t pretend to be able bodied. Tom Cruise can play a wheelchair user in Born on the Fourth of July, but it’s unlikely a real wheelchair user is going to get the lead role in Mission: Impossible. In mainstream movies, people with disabilities are typically (a) pure evil or purely heroic and (b) played by able-bodied actors in search of Oscars.
I recently went to see a staged reading of Rosaleen McDonagh’s fascinating play Mainstream at Project Arts Centre, in Dublin. McDonagh is disabled, the play is largely about disability and all of the characters are disabled.
Much of the action and emotion in the piece depends on the physical realities of how the people look and speak. But just one of the four actors, Donal Toolan, uses a wheelchair. The other three – Derbhle Crotty, Don Wycherley and Liz Fitzgibbon – are able bodied. It was like watching a play about the experiences of black people in which three of the four characters were played by white actors.